Sihanoukville is known for having having many easily accessible beaches and sights. The city is also known for having expensive, disagreeable tuk tuk drivers, which makes renting a motorbike in Sihanoukville a tempting proposition. There is one thing that may stop you though – those pesky laws. In this post, I’ll go over the most common reasons foreigners get pulled over in Sihanoukville, and how to avoid them.
The good news is that on January 1, 2016 the Cambodian government put in place a whole new set of traffic laws that make it a lot easier to keep yourself out of trouble with the ever present, and fearfully reputed, Sihanoukville Traffic Police.
Not having a Cambodian license
The most obvious question that is going to pop into the head of any foreigner is, “Is it legal for me to drive without a license?”
Sadly, the answer to this one is not 100% definitive. It’s now official! You don’t need to have a license for scooters and motorbikes equal to or under 125cc engine power (which is generally what you will be renting). If you are in doubt there is usually a number on the side of the bike that will tell you the size of the engine, but almost all rentals are 125cc or under (dirt bikes and large motorbikes are a different story).
Even if it turns out that a license isn’t strictly required, if you are staying for a while it is worth it to get your Cambodian driving license. I have never been in an accident in Cambodia, but I believe that it will be very useful to have your license at that stage of the game. Also, if you have travel or health insurance many policies will not cover you for traffic accidents if you are driving without a license.
Not wearing a helmet
Your next major concern with riding a motorbike in Cambodia is the helmet. The recent law change upped the fine for not wearing one from $1.25 to $3.75 and now includes passengers as well as drivers.
Every motorbike I have rented has come with a free (and usually very stylish…) helmet, and an extra helmet is usually free of charge if you ask. This law is common sense and, even though you will see a lot of Cambodians driving around without one, you will see a lot of them pulled over and dealing with the police.
It is also worth noting that you should ask your moto taxi driver for a helmet as well because if you get pulled over they will usually look to you to shell out the fine.
Not wearing a shirt
Another basic safety issue is wearing a shirt. I actually can’t find any laws that specifically state that you need to wear a shirt, but I have heard enough stories from friends who have been fined for not wearing one, that I think it is worth it to save getting a tan for the beach!
Driving with your headlights on
The third most common Cambodian police ticket is a bit counter-intuitive but a definite no-no. Make sure to shut off your headlights while driving during the day. Cambodian officials are permitted to keep their lights on, but you are not, and you will definitely get a ticket for it if you forget. The police really love this one because it carries a heavy $6.25 fine.
Using a cell phone and running red lights
Recently in Sihanoukville they have begun pulling people over for using a cellphone while driving and running red lights. However, it is still not always custom to stop at red lights so be sure the person behind you is also stopping as you pull up to a red and also be on guard for non-stoppers as you pass through a green.
What to do if you get pulled over
Before you get on a moto, keep most of your money in a place other than your wallet, so you can claim you don’t have the amount they have requested. Also, even though the law is on your side, try not to get in a huge argument and just give them a ‘tip’ for their trouble, usually between $2 and $5. After tipping the police once in a day you will not have to pay again as you can just tell any other police officers that you have already paid.
Another good idea when dealing with the police in this situation is to remain calm and if they ask you what you are doing in Cambodia, say that you live here. This approach will make them realize that you are never going to pay the $20 to $50 they will sometimes ask for.
If you really don’t want to deal with the police at all, do your best to stay off of Ekareach Street starting from the Golden Lions roundabout and going into town. Check-stops on side streets are virtually non-existent.
Cambodian traffic laws
The rest of Cambodia’s traffic laws are fairly similar to those in other countries, but you will rarely get a fine for breaking any of them. In fact, there are so many people breaking normal driving rules that at first it may appear as if there are no rules at all!
It should also be noted that the police have said they are going to start having check stops near clubs and bars to catch drunk drivers. The fines for drinking and driving a motorcycle have been raised to between $7.50 and $200, and even more for driving a car.
The final point about the new traffic laws should not affect drivers, but it is interesting and may help you feel a little less victimized if you end up paying a fine. In an effort to make the system a little less corrupt and encourage police to hand out legitimate tickets, the government has legislated that 70% of each traffic ticket will go to the police officers themselves. The result of this is that you will often be given a receipt for your payment and that your fine amount is a lot less negotiable than it was before.
Of course, this does encourage cops to hand out more tickets and may encourage them to push the limit of what is and is not an offense, but for now the crazy amount of people still not wearing a helmet seems to be keeping them busy.
All of these new laws are a welcome change for drivers wishing to avoid confrontations with the police, and so far in 2016 I have been able to avoid paying any bribes or fines. That being said, when renting a motorcycle you should definitely be aware that the traffic in Cambodia is not going to be the same as wherever you are from.
I would recommend at least taking a few rides on the back of a moto taxi to get a feel for the flow of traffic. There are some patterns that you can start to identify, and despite Sihanoukville’s reputation for having a lot of traffic police, it is a great place to learn because it is a lot less busy than Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
More on getting around Sihanoukville, including where to rent a moto.